Deficient Social Skills

Q: My ten-year-old son has severe deficits in his social skills, and it has been very difficult to point this out to him. When I describe ways that he might have hurt other people’s feelings, he becomes very defensive and blames the other boy for being “mean.” He also has a problem reading, and is embarrassed about this. We have other family problems that he is self-conscious about.

His Rebbi and the counselor that he sees in school met with my son and me in the past week to discuss these issues with him. He was responding as if he was clueless, and hoped to buy a bow and arrows for Lag BaOmer, to help “win friendships.” The Rebbi tried to explain that the gesture of giving to others was a kind one, but that it is not the main thing that he has to work on.

The Rebbi spoke of my son’s need to think before he speaks, but I’m not sure if my son honestly realizes that what he says, is such a problem.

For example, my son doesn’t understand that when he says, “I don’t believe that you didn’t understand the math,” that this statement can seem condescending, or be seen by others as almost showing off. He’s also not aware that when he “spaces out” while talking to peers, they often think that he is not interested in them. He can exaggerate the truth, hoping that his classmates will respect him more, but the opposite happens. The Rebbi said that his classmates generally don’t believe him at this point when he tells stories.

My son doesn’t know when to compromise with others when playing, and is afraid that others take advantage of him.

His school counselor told me that he couldn’t think of the positive attributes of any of his classmates when they discussed this topic. My son’s Rebbi is very open to helping my son with his social problems, if you could think of a way that he can do this.

Any suggestions?

A: It is very commendable that your son’s Rebbi takes such individual interest, and wants to help your son with his social limitations. He can truly be an excellent conduit in helping to guide your son in relation to social skills.

Your son’s teacher can observe inappropriate social responses and point them out to your son in a thought-out, sensitive manner. By using the “cushion method,” your son’s teacher can start with giving the benefit of the doubt to your son, by saying, “I’m sure that you weren’t aware, but…” He can also say, “I’m sure you meant nothing by it, but…” Then his teacher can point out the social faux pas that your son has inadvertently made. The second verbal “cushion” is then expressed (to ease the discomfort of being criticized) using a comment such as, “I’m sure that you’ll be more aware, in the future.”

Your son needs to be agreeable to such an arrangement, after its advantages are explained to him.

In general, the most common defensive response is an offensive one — blaming the other person. Since your son seems to feel “second-class” in terms of his learning and home situation, it is understandable that he doesn’t want to feel “second-class” in still another area, and blames others.

You can help the situation by attempting to build your son’s self-esteem (and your family’s), as often described in these parenting columns. In this way, he will have less of a need to “exaggerate” stories, or criticize peers, to elevate his own status.

In relation to being a role model, it would be very helpful to continually, consciously, point out the positive character traits of others. You can give examples (without mentioning names, of course), of how you judged others incorrectly, and how psychologically healthy it is to give others the benefit of the doubt. Siblings can share an “ahavas Yisrael” chart, verbally pointing out the good in others, and receive rewards for doing so.